Even a March-style national lockdown with schools mainly closed might not be enough to hold the coronavirus R rate below one, government scientists have warned.
A grim assessment from SAGE says the new variant appears so much more contagious that the brutal blanket restrictions imposed in November would be ‘highly unlikely’ to contain the spread.
Closing schools to all but the children of key workers and the vulnerable, as happened in the Spring, could bring the crucial reproduction rate down further but it is still ‘not known’ whether it would succeed in suppressing the outbreak.
The dire picture was revealed as the government published minutes from a meeting of the top scientists on December 22, shortly after Boris Johnson announced the existence of the Covid mutation and tore up plans for Christmas ‘bubbles’.
It will fuel fears that the country is now doomed to brutal Tier curbs until at least the Spring – and even that would be assuming that vaccines can be rolled out widely enough by then to allow the squeeze to end.
Speculation is mounting that schools will need to face even more draconian restrictions, despite the threat of damage to a generation of children – and the advice will also raise questions about why ministers waited another week before changing their approach yesterday.
Education Secretary Gavin Willliamson today refused to apologise to furious parents after a dramatic U-turn that means around a million children at primaries in Covid ‘hotspots’ in London, Essex, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, East Sussex and Kent will stay at home when term begins on January 4.
Amid signs of a bitter row in Cabinet, Mr Williamson said the government was having to move at ‘incredible pace’ due to the mutant strain of coronavirus.
But the decisions over what areas are classified as high-risk were branded ‘illogical’, with primaries in neighbouring streets getting starkly different orders and little clarity over the criteria being used to set the rules. London councils are calling for all classes to be cancelled.
Secondaries also face an anxious wait to find out whether they will be able to reopen fully on the new target date of January 18.
The Department for Education is racing to put a mass testing system in place, but has warned the curbs could need to be even wider than for primaries as older children are more likely to spread the disease. The situation is not expected to become clear until the next review date of January 13.
The minutes of the SAGE meeting from December 22 offer little optimism that the situation can be resolved without further curbs.
‘It is highly unlikely that measures with stringency and adherence in line with the measures in England in November (i.e. with schools open) would be sufficient to maintain R below 1 in the presence of the new variant,’ the scientists said.
‘R would be lower with schools closed, with closure of secondary schools likely to have a greater effect than closure of primary schools. It remains difficult to distinguish where transmission between children takes place, and it is important to consider contacts made outside of schools.’
The minutes added: ‘It is not known whether measures with similar stringency and adherence as Spring, with both primary and secondary schools closed, would be sufficient to bring R below 1 in the presence of the new variant.’
The experts said the Tier 4 measures in England, combined with the school holidays would be ‘informative’ about how strong measures need to be to control the new variant – but ‘analysis of this will not be possible until mid-January’.
They also highlighted the threat of universities returning in the New Year – with Mr Williamson having now announced tougher restrictions on face-to-face teaching.
The chaos and division over schools came as:
- Questions have been raised about the UK vaccination drive despite Defence Secretary Ben Wallace saying the military ‘stands ready’ to deliver as many as 100,00 doses a day – or 700,000 a week;
- Scotland has announced 2,622 coronavirus cases, the third day in a row that it has set a new record – although testing is now far more widespread than at the height of the first wave;
- Boris Johnson warned of a new ‘reality’ with mutant Covid rampant on Wednesday as he plunged virtually the whole of England into brutal lockdown – with the UK recording 981 deaths in the worst daily toll since April and vaccines the only hope of escape;
- The government has launched an advertising blitz urging people to see in 2021 ‘within the rules’ because ‘Covid loves a crowd’;
- London ICUs have asked major hospitals in Yorkshire if they will agree to take some patients as wards hospital admissions exceed peak of first wave;
Two thirds of England’s population – around 44million people – is now in Tier 4, with the remainder living in Tier 3 lockdowns. Only the Isles of Scilly, off the coast of Cornwall, is in the looser Tier 2
Boris Johnson suggested this evening that even the January 18 return date could be changed for some schools as he said the Government’s approach will be shaped by infection rates
NHS chief Prof Stephen Powis tells Britons NOT to throw New Year’s Eve parties warning: ‘Covid loves a crowd’
Britons have been warned not to throw New Year’s Eve parties because ‘Covid loves a crowd’.
All of England – except 2,000 residents on the Isles of Scilly – face the two toughest
Prof Powis told a
‘This action will reduce infections, relieve pressures on hospitals, and that’s how everybody can help to save a life.
‘Covid loves a crowd, so please leave the parties for later in the year.’
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said after the approval of the Oxford vaccine this week that he now has a ‘very high degree of confidence that we are going to be out of this by the spring,’ in a worrying echo of Boris Johnson’s claim in July that the UK would be ‘back to normal by Christmas’.
But experts say they expect the repeated lockdowns and social distancing rules to keep rolling for ‘months and months’, lasting until May or even deep into the summer of 2021.
The PM yesterday refused to put a ‘deadline’ on when he thought the current rules – which have 78 per cent of England’s population in the toughest Tier 4 – would end, but admitted they might stay until the spring, with the UK now in a race against time to vaccinate the nation.
Families hoping for a reunion after being separated during the festive period might be out of luck, with scientists convinced the outbreak is still getting worse. They fear even the toughest lockdowns might not be able to stop the spread of the new super-infectious variant of the coronavirus.
Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious disease expert at the University of East Anglia, told BBC Radio 4: ‘It is going to be a very, very difficult few months until we get, hopefully, relief as we move from spring into summer when many people will have been vaccinated and the warmer weather will be here.’
Dr Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at the University of Reading, told MailOnline he expected lockdown rules would keep going ‘until April or May’ before the effects of mass-vaccination would be strong enough to relax restrictions.
And Dr Gabriel Scally, a public health professor at the University of Bristol and member of Independent SAGE, told this website he expects the harsh rules to carry on for ‘months and months’, with some form of national lockdown now the best option.
Their comments come after No10 yesterday plunged 20million more people into the toughest lockdown rules after allowing them to meet with families over Christmas, meaning there are now 44million people living in Tier 4 – in which all non-essential shops and hospitality businesses must close – with the remaining 12million living in Tier Three. Only the Isles of Scilly, with a population of 2,000 off Cornwall’s coast, is in Tier 1.
Boris Johnson and his ministers are pressing forward with plans to stick to the local lockdown system despite the situation rapidly getting worse all over the country.
Experts said SAGE will no doubt be pressuring the Government to order another national lockdown but there is a ‘political imperative’ not to officially call another one – or at least to not call it a national lockdown. One of the advisers on the SAGE panel, Warwick University mathematician Dr Mike Tildesley, warned the current outbreak will end with ‘ultimately, probably, a national lockdown before we get to the end of January’.
There was widespread anger today about the chaotic changes announced by ministers on schools.
One parent said the situation is ‘totally ridiculous’, adding: ‘The school at one end of the street I live in will be closed while the school at the other end is open’. Another said their area had been ‘split in two’ with ‘schools on one side of the road closed, the other side open’.
Around two-thirds of schools in the capital will be shut for an extra fortnight from Monday – meaning there are many households where one child will be forced to stay at home while another will still go to school in a neighbouring borough.
With most secondary schools shut until at least January 18 – or even indefinitely – millions of children face weeks or even months of ‘inadequate’ virtual classes that the head of Ofsted believes sets back children ‘years’, particularly those from working class backgrounds.
Experts say that months at home during the first lockdown saw many youngsters regress academically, socially and developmentally with only vulnerable children and the children of key workers in the worst-hit areas allowed to return to their desks next week
Labour’s London Mayor Sadiq Khan and party colleagues running the city’s councils are pushing for all schools in London to shut as UK daily infections hit 50,000 again yesterday and headteachers in Tier 4 areas have hinted they could defy the Government and close anyway. Union members have even called for teachers to go on strike.
Jo Riley, who runs a school in Hackney, tweeted today: ‘Since March 2020 I’ve tried to be open & transparent with my school community about the decisions we’ve made. Yesterday’s announcement has broken me. I can’t look them in the eye and say our school is open on the 4th when they can see the stats’.
Greenwich Council leader Dan Thorpe, who tried to shut schools before Christmas, said: ‘I’m extremely concerned that Gavin Williamson has made the wrong decision today for schools, teachers, families & children in Greenwich. The decision doesn’t make sense and I will be doing everything in my power to make sure we get the right solution’.
Plans for all primary school pupils to return to classrooms next week were halted last night as Mr Johnson vowed to ‘redouble’ efforts to stem the mutant strain of coronavirus.
SAGE warnings of fresh national lockdown as ministers play down fears
Ministers today desperately tried to cool fears of a fresh national lockdown as a SAGE expert warned it was ‘probably’ going to happen.
Doctor Mike Tildesley, a member of the scientific modelling committee, which advises the government as a sub-group of SAGE, says the whole country will likely have to be plunged into Tier 4 or a national lockdown before the end of January in a bid to stem spiralling infection rates.
In a stark warning on BBC Radio 4 today, he said: ‘Cases are rising in a really concerning way, so I suspect that unfortunately we will see a ramping-up even further of restrictions, probably more of the country being in Tier 4 or ultimately probably a national lockdown before we get to the end of January’.
However, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said he was ‘confident’ there will not be another national squeeze.
He told Sky News: ‘We’re taking the absolute right approach to pursue the tiering system.
‘It’s really important that areas have the opportunity to move down the tiering system as well as having to sometimes move areas up the tiering system.
‘We recognise there are impositions that this has on everyone’s lives but it is the right approach, it’s the proper approach.
‘This is a robust approach, so I’m confident that we won’t be moving into a national lockdown situation because the tiering structure is the right place to be.’
Primary schools in heavily afflicted areas such as London, Essex and Kent will now not be allowed to reopen on January 4 as ministers had hoped.
Only vulnerable children and the children of key workers will be allowed to return to their desks, while the rest will be forced to attend lessons online.
The Prime Minister also pushed back the start of term for the bulk of secondary school pupils by a week, meaning they are now set to return on January 18 rather than January 11 – when only Years 11 and 13 preparing for exams will go back.
Mr Johnson even cast doubt over this return date and said: ‘I want to stress that depending on the spread of the disease it may be necessary to take further action in their cases as well in the worst affected areas.’
In a round of interviews this morning, Mr Williamson struggled to explain how the restrictions on primary schools were being decided.
He told Sky News: ‘The work that was done with the Department of Health who identified areas where it was either a very high rate or, using their latest data, were seeing very sharp increases in the number of cases or equally the pressures on hospitals in that area and the clinical needs.
‘These were all the considerations that were taken into account but what I want to say, and this will come as no surprise to you whatsoever, I want to see schools, any school, that’s closed for those first two weeks, opening at the earliest possible opportunity.’
Asked whether he apologised to parents, teachers and children for the notice given for the measures, Mr Williamson said: ‘I think we all recognise that if we go back a few weeks where there was no new variant of Covid, none of us would have been expecting us to be having to take the actions, whether it’s in regards to schools, whether it’s in regards to Tier 4 moves that the Government has had to make, but it’s the Government that’s having to respond at incredible pace to a global pandemic and then a new variant of that virus.
‘It’s not what any of us would want to do, it’s not a decision that any of us would be wanting to have to implement, but we’ve had to do that because circumstances have dictated it.
‘I think the British public expect the Government to do what is right and even though that is sometimes uncomfortable, it is taking the right actions, dealing with these extraordinary times.’
Mr Williamson said he was ‘absolutely confident’ schools will return as per the new staggered timetable.
He said: ‘We are absolutely confident that all schools are returning. You’re going to see over 85 per cent of primary schools returning on Monday morning, you’re going to be seeing exam cohorts going back right across the country on January 11.’
Defending the efforts to introduce mass testing in secondary schools, Mr Williamson said: ‘There’s absolutely no reason that schools won’t be ready.’
He said £78 million of additional funding, equipment such as personal protective equipment (PPE) and support from the military would help them get mass testing programmes set up.
Mr Williamson said: ‘We really want to hold their hands, support them, help them. We’re asking everyone right across the country to do pretty extraordinary things at the moment.’
Drawing on his two school-age daughters’ experience during the pandemic, Mr Williamson said: ‘How much they (children) miss out by not being in schools, that’s why we’re taking these extraordinary actions because it’s always best to have children in school if it’s possible to do so.’
However, Robert Halfon, chair of the Education Select Committee and Tory MP for Harlow, voiced fears for an ‘epidemic of educational poverty’.
He told BBC Breakfast: ‘I do worry very much about children not being in school. I understand we have to balance the risks of coronavirus, absolutely, and do everything possible to keep staff and children safe, but I also worry about the impact of lost learning on the children…
‘This is very, very, very difficult all around and I think the impact on educational learning and mental health is perhaps the two most important things because these are things that are very difficult to deal with.
‘We want to deal with coronavirus but we don’t want an epidemic of educational poverty and mental health crises amongst young people in our country.’
Mr Johnson held a Downing Street press briefing last night after all of England – except for 2,000 residents on the Isles of Scilly – was marked for the toughest two coronavirus tiers from midnight.
Three-quarters of the country are now under the most draconian Tier 4 restrictions and under strict ‘stay at home’ orders.
Mr Johnson pleaded with the public to follow the rules over New Year and signalled that yesterday’s approval of the ‘game-changer’ Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine could bring and end to lockdowns by Spring.
Williamson bats away calls for teachers to get vaccine priority
Gavin Williamson has batted away calls for teachers to get higher priority in the vaccine rollout.
There has been pressure for school staff to be offered the jabs as part of efforts to get children back in classrooms safely.
But in a round of interviews the Education Secretary said doses were being targeted at the ‘most vulnerable’.
“As you’re well aware, we’ve prioritised in that first wave of vaccines those people who are most vulnerable, who are most likely to be in a position of being hospitalised as a result of catching Covid-19,’ he said.
“I think we all recognise where the first vaccines need to go, to those who are most likely to lose their lives as a result of catching Covid.”
Mr Williamson said there will be teachers who are prioritised for the vaccine because they are clinically extremely vulnerable.
He added: “When we look at future waves of a rollout of a vaccine … as you can imagine, as Education Secretary I’ll be wanting to see teachers and all those support staff being up there on that list getting that vaccine.”
Asked directly whether teachers should be prioritised like healthcare workers, Mr Williamson added: “In future waves, obviously, this is a decision that will be made across government, it’d be great to see more teachers right up there getting the vaccine, but it’s got to be made on clinical judgment as to how best we deal with and beat this virus.”
‘We are still in the tunnel of this pandemic, the light however is not merely visible… the tunnel has been shortened, we’re moving faster through it and that gives me great confidence about the future in the Spring,’ he said.
Yet as the UK suffered its deadliest day since April with 981 Covid-19 deaths, the PM said he ‘bitterly regretted’ having to impose such harsh measures.
Mr Johnson stressed that education remained a ‘national priority’, but Labour and teacher unions lined up to blast the ‘chaotic 11th-hour announcement’ which will see millions of students out of classrooms at the start of the New Year.
Mr Williamson has faced massive pressure in recent weeks over the proposed staggered restart of secondary schools and colleges in the New Year as teachers, unions and scientists all called for a delay.
However, the decision to keep primary schools in hotspot areas closed went further than many people were expecting.
The Education Secretary told MPs: ‘We will be opening the majority of primary schools as planned on Monday January 4.
‘We know how vitally important it is for younger children to be in school for their education, wellbeing and wider development.
‘In a small number of areas where the infection rates are highest we will implement our existing contingency framework such as only vulnerable children and children of critical workers will attend face-to-face.
‘We will publish this list of areas today on the gov.uk website.’
The full list of the areas subject to primary school closures from January 4 was later published by the Department for Education.
It includes 22 London boroughs, 11 boroughs in Essex and nine in Kent.
Mr Williamson stressed the restrictions on primary schools are only being applied to the worst-hit infection hotspots and that the ‘overwhelming majority’ in England will open as planned.
He also said areas which are subject to the restrictions on face-to-face primary teaching will be regularly reviewed in the hope that schools can reopen as soon as possible.
On the issue of secondary schools and colleges, the Education Secretary said the coronavirus infection rate is ‘particularly high among this age group’ and as a result ‘we are going to allow more time so that every school and college is able to fully roll-out testing for all of its pupils and staff’.
He said: ‘All pupils in exam years are to return during the week beginning January 11, with all secondary school and college students returning full time on January 18.
‘During the first week of term on or after January 4, secondary schools and colleges will prepare to test as many staff and students as possible and will only be open to vulnerable children and the children of key workers.’
Mr Williamson said he expected the ‘full return of all pupils in all year groups’ on January 18.
However, speaking at a Downing Street press conference this evening, Mr Johnson suggested that date could be changed for some schools depending on infection rates.
He said: ‘I want to stress that depending on the spread of the disease it may be necessary to take further action in their cases as well in the worst affected areas.’
The timing of the announcement of the schools rethink sparked a furious reaction from union leaders.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said: ‘This is another last-minute mess which could so easily have been avoided if the Government had listened to school leaders before the holidays.
‘Instead, back then, schools which wanted to shift to remote learning were threatened with legal action. Now we have a situation where the Government is instructing schools to reduce the amount of teaching time available.
‘If we’d had the freedom to take action before the holidays, we might have been in a position to have more schools open for more pupils. School leaders will be baffled, frustrated and justifiably angry tonight.’
Jon Richards, head of education at the union Unison, said: ‘Everyone agrees it’s important for schools and colleges to open but it can’t be at any expense when infections are rising.
‘This delay for secondary schools is a sensible decision, giving more time to organise mass testing effectively to limit the spread. Primary and early years reopening should also be delayed because social distancing isn’t really possible.
‘Ministers should also ensure any moves to extend the vaccine priority list must cover all school staff and not just teachers.’
The Government’s initial plan was for exam year pupils to physically return to secondary schools and colleges from January 4 while the other students took part in online learning before then going back on January 11.
‘Dedicated and inspirational’ secondary school teacher, 55, dies from Covid just two days after Christmas
Parents, pupils and teachers have described Teesside teacher Paul Hilditch, 55, as ‘dedicated and inspirational’ following his death on Sunday.
Headteacher of Conyers School, Louise Spellman, said they were ‘deeply saddened’ at the sudden loss of their colleague and friend.
Mr Hilditch taught engineering and technology at Conyers for four years and Ms Spellman said he was ‘a truly dedicated, caring and well-loved member of staff.’
The popular teacher had no known underlying health conditions and it is not yet clear how he caught the virus.
His death comes as coronavirus cases continue to surge across the UK and parents and schoolchildren face further disruption after ministers announced plans to close primary schools in areas of England worst-hit by coronavirus.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson also confirmed that most secondary school pupils will see the start of term delayed by a fortnight to January 18.
Paul Hilditch, 55, died just two days after Christmas following a two-week battle with Covid-19
Teaching unions have also criticised the Government’s handling of the pandemic as they called for greater risk assessments to protect staff from the virus.
Yesterday Britain announced a further 981 Covid-19 deaths on top of another 50,023 new infections.
Ms Spellman said: ‘Paul was a fantastic teacher who thought so much of his students and really gave his all to ensure they achieved their best,’ she said.
‘Paul loved our school and our students: he will be remembered as a kind, devoted and truly brilliant teacher.
‘All of our thoughts and prayers are with Paul’s friends and family at this time.’
Tributes were paid on social media to Mr Hilditch, who was a keen member of local reenactment group the Northern World War Two Association.
The parents of a pupil said: ‘My son really took to him and the way he taught – despite having only been taught by him since September.
‘Absolutely heartbreaking, thoughts and love to his family.’
Another wrote: ‘Such a terrible loss. My daughter thought he was a great teacher. My thoughts go out to his family.’
One shocked pupil said: ‘No way I’m reading this, he was one the best teachers in there. Rest in peace.’
‘Anyone who doesn’t wear their mask – they have blood on their hands’: Intensive care doctor blames ‘badly behaved’ public for Covid hospitals crisis after UK suffered deadliest day since April
The public are to blame for the record number of Covid cases in Britain and have ‘blood on their hands’ if they don’t wear masks as patients wait 24 hours for hospital beds to stop coronavirus ‘spreading like wildfire’ through wards, a top doctor claimed today.
Professor Hugh Montgomery, a consultant at University College Hospital in London, said he is ‘angry’ with people for ‘behaving badly’ and failing to follow the rules as infections hit 50,000-plus again and deaths approached 1,000 yesterday.
‘We can’t blame the Government, we can’t blame the Tier system. This is people behaving badly. I’m just very angry about this. If we were wearing masks, washing hands, this virus would not be as it is’, he told Times Radio. He added: ‘Anyone who doesn’t wear their mask – they have blood on their hands. They are spreading this virus, then other people will spread it and people will die. They won’t know they’ve killed people, but they have’.
Professor Montgomery’s incendiary claims have angered other medics, with Dr Ellie Cannon tweeting: ‘Wow. I couldn’t disagree more! Since when has a public health campaign ever been based on blaming the public?’ while another critic saying: ‘Throwing blame around just makes people feel angry and disheartened, and inevitably distracts everyone from more important issues’.
Professor Hugh Montgomery, pictured, an A&E consultant at University College Hospital in London, said he is ‘angry’ with the public for failing to follow the rules and have ‘blood on their hands’ for not wearing masks
Doctors and nurses at The Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel – have begged bosses to declare an emergency as they opened a new ward and moved adults into a paediatric ward after 200 new Covid patients were admitted this week.
Essex has already declared a ‘major incident’ as the number of coronavirus cases threatens to overwhelm its six hospitals and ambulances queued outside A&Es all over the country due to a lack of beds and staff.
Gareth Grier, an A&E consultant at Barts Health NHS Trust in east London, said today: ‘If Covid patients are left in corridors then covid will spread like wildfire within the hospital. This cannot be allowed to happen. The corridor medicine that was previously endemic in emergency departments would kill people and staff if allowed to reoccur. Hence the awful, terrible option of treating patients outside hospitals’.
UK hospitals are running low on workers, ward space, oxygen and even pillows with patients being treated by medics inside emergency vehicles as they waited up to six hours to be admitted. In some cases people were later diverted more than 100 miles away while some packed London ICUs have started asking major hospitals in Tyneside and Yorkshire if they will take some of their Covid patients.